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Will PGA + DGA = Oscar for ‘The Shape of Water?’

Guillermo del Toro’s victory at the Directors Guild of America Awards Saturday night, coupled with a Producers Guild win for his film “The Shape of Water” two weeks ago, would appear to signal clear sailing for Fox Searchlight’s fairytale entrant in the best-picture Oscar lottery. But a year after “La La Land” ran the very same table, caution in calling this race would be wise.

At minimum, after already proving to be the most laureled filmmaker on the precursor circuit, del Toro has solidified his status as best-director Oscar frontrunner. In 69 years of DGA history, 61 guild winners, “La La Land” helmer Damien Chazelle included, have gone on to win the Academy Award for directing as well. Of the eight instances the guild winner was passed over by the Academy, three were owed to bizarre scenarios whereby the DGA’s choice was not even Oscar-nominated — an unusual place in film awards history for Ben Affleck (“Argo”), Ron Howard (“Apollo 13”) and Steven Spielberg (“The Color Purple”). One other discrepancy came as a result of the DGA’s early use of a non-calendar year.

So in truth, only four times in 70 years under “normal” circumstances have the DGA and the film Academy differed on the year’s top directorial accomplishment. That’s a really stunning historical alignment when you think about it. Given that the Academy Awards for best picture and best director have so often been aligned over the years, the DGA prize was long seen as an Oscar harbinger. But things have clearly changed.

The preferential ballot was re-introduced to the best-picture category nearly a decade ago, and since that time, we’ve seen a picture/director split on four occasions — four of the last five years, in fact. However, things were already beginning to trend that way just before the preferential system was brought back into play, suggesting an ongoing status quo throwback to the early decades of the Academy, when the two prizes were less tethered in voters’ minds.

What all of that means is there is still a length of road to travel. If del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor can secure the Writers Guild prize next weekend, then it’s likely a done deal; “Brokeback Mountain” remains the only film to lose best picture after wining the PGA, DGA and WGA prizes. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

For now, the toast of the circuit remains “The Shape of Water,” and with major guild support plus 13 Oscar nominations to its credit, it certainly walks and talks like an Oscar frontrunner.

Del Toro bested Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), Martin McDonagh (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), Christopher Nolan (“Dunkirk”) and Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) for the DGA honor. All but McDonagh were Oscar-nominated, with “Phantom Thread” helmer Paul Thomas Anderson taking a spot in his stead.

Peele received the DGA’s debut filmmaker award for “Get Out,” while Matthew Heineman won the documentary prize for “City of Ghosts,” which was ignored for an Oscar nomination despite being the most awarded documentary of the season. Heineman also joins Barbara Kopple and Jehane Noujaim as the only documentary filmmakers to win the DGA Award twice. He was previously recognized for “Cartel Land.”

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